Knesset plenum
Knesset plenumOlivier Fitoussi/Flash90

What does the ‘politics of self identity' constitute?

The result of Israel's latest election was the ultimate example of people voting their ‘political self image/identity’, and not voting on the basis of current, real time ideological issues. In the absence of a campaign based on ideological disagreements (the election was simply about being for or against Bibi) everyone used the opportunity to vote for the niche in which they place themselves on the self identity spectrum of Right/nationalistic/religious to Left/progressive liberal/secular.

So Israel ended up with the following long list of ‘niche/sectoral’ political parties: two national religious, two haredi, two Likud parties (loyalists and dissidents), two self-styled ‘Center’ (Lapid and Gantz), two Left, and two Arab (in reality four) parties, and Liberman's Russian secular party, altogether ten parties, ten niches on the scale of socio-political self identity. People voted how they define themselves when they look in the mirror when they wake up. They voted more on the basis of ‘who am I?’, rather than on the question of ‘what are the ideological programs I want to see the next government implement?”

Roughly, people who social culturally define themselves as ‘dati lite-liberal’ voted for Bennett. People who social culturally define themselves as ‘dati-torani’ voted for Smotrich. People in the Center made a similar choice between Lapid and Gantz, and on the Left, between Meretz and Labor. The voters of the haredi parties voted their self definiton as being either religious-Sephardic, religious hasidic or religious Litvish - and some voted for Smotrich. The Arab parties are similarly divided into four social cultural groups, and Libermans’ party is strictly defined in secular-Russian ethnic terms.

World wide poltics is now being defined by social cultural identity factors, and not by social economic based ideologies

It is imperative to note that this last Israeli election’s embodiment of the politics of self identity is a world wide phenomenon. In the postmodern world, where, except for conservatives, all definitions of Truth (ideologies) are held to be relative to time and society (and not to be objectively Absolute truths) people now vote according to a variety of self identity factors. They vote as they define themselves in terms of factors such as their ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and socio economic status. They no longer vote because they derive their self identity on the basis of personal loyalty to an ideological movement striving to implement specific social economic agenda.

More specifically, in the past Left and Right in the world were primarily defined in economic terms. The Left ideologically wanted to use the central government to engineer the economy in order to create greater economic equality, and provide more social resources to the poor. The Right ideologically supported a more free, less regulated economy based on the priority of promoting individual liberties.

While it is true that in Israel, the traditional Left was staunchly secular and more universal in its outlook, and in contrast, the traditional Right was pro religious and nationalistic in its outlook, these premises were subordinate elements of competing Left/Right ideologies based on competing social economic programs.

Today the opposite is true. In both the Left and Right economic issues are subordinate to self identity questions of religion versus secularism, and nationalism versus global universalism.

Israeli’s political system may be historically moving from a system first dominated by one party, then by two political blocs , and now to multiple self identity parties

It is important to put the self identity results of our recent election in historical perspective. These latest election results may a turning point in the history of Israeli politics.

From 1948 until 1977 Israel was primarily a one party state. Labor/Mapai always got between 40-50 seats, and then formed coalitions with 2-4 minor parties who all had less than ten seats. From 1977 till roughly 2010 Israel was roughly a two party, Right-Likud or Left/Labor political system, with each getting between 25-35 seats, and then forming coalitions with minority parties of approximately ten or less seats. The two dominant parties were ideologically based, had strong political leadership with years of ministerial experience, and created two stable, Left–Right, blocs.

During this two party era, the Right/Likud was dominant because the country was demographically moving rightward, and because of its ability to more easily form coalitions with the religious parties. The long term Netanyahu prime ministership is the product, and main protagonist, of this era of two competitive, political blocs .

The advantages and dangers of a politics defined by self identity based parties

Apparent advantages

On the surface a political ecology dominated by self identity parties could look promising. Seemingly it could defuse the deep, historical antagonistic rivalry between two competing ideological blocs. By downgrading differences in social cultural values, small self identity parties could form a coalition government by judiciously deciding how to divide up the political cake, committing themselves to administer the country in a professional way, and each sector would be satisfied with the political spoils it receives. Quiet would ensue on the political front.

Theoretically, in an era of self identity politics, politics would no longer be a irreconcilable conflict of the Forces of Darkness versus the Forces of Light ( with each side believing they are Forces of Light).

Apparent disadvantages

But the news from America is not encouraging concerning the prospect that self identity parties will encourage utilitarian compromise and cooperation in place ongoing, political ideological warfare.

It turns out that in the postmodern world people are actually less willing to compromise on issues of cultural identity than on socio-economic ideological issues.

For example, America’s recent political history shows people are more willing to compromise on economic issues (rate of taxation, or the degree of economic regulation) and less willing to compromise on issues of social cultural identity. America is becoming increasingly polarized on self identity issues of racism, religion and gender identity, self image and gun control, even to the point that the politics of cultural identity is now making mask wearing and covid vaccinations issues of political conflict.

It turns out that self identity politics instead of opening avenues of compromise is creating a political climate where everyone feels his self identity is constantly being seriously threatened from many different directions. Self identity politics is creating an atmosphere where every sector feels that it has to be constantly on guard to protect its self identity survival. And a climate of uncompromising polarization is the result.

What would be the future of an Israeli political system dominated by small, self identity parties?

In my opinion the future is forbidding:

One, a coalition of multiple, small, self identity parties is very likely to be unstable, weak and short lived. Lacking a common denominator of a shared ideological world view, such coalitions will easily dissolve when confronted by unexpected crises over basic issues of military security, religion and state, and international pressure concerning Palestinian Arabs and Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel.

Two, a system of small self identity parties will not produce strong, experienced political leaders of statesman stature. Politics is an art and a science. Gifted statesmanship is a product of years of experience in intra party political gamesmanship, and years of experience in ministerial posts. In contrast, the leaders of self identity parties will be primarily responsible to the views of only a small sector of the Israeli public. They will not acquire the skills of statesmanship gained from climbing the political ladder of leadership of a broad based, national political movement. Small self identity parties will not produce leaders of Ben Gurion’s or Netanyahu's stature.

Three, as in America, the politics of self identity will lead to polarization of the political system. Although Israel over the years has become accustomed to very different social sectors living next to each other in a modest degree of mutual political understanding (for example the long term, but now extinct, cooperation between the secular Russian sector with the haredi parties within the Right wing bloc), I believe such cooperation will become more tenuous when each small self identity party travels solo in its own political orbit, and does not have an historical allegiance to an overriding Right/Left political bloc.


The post modern, social culture of self identity may be threatening Israel’s ability to stand up to existential challenges

The era of a two bloc, Left Right political system seems to be passing. A political system based on ten, small self identity parties must be inherently weaker, less stable, and less capable of providing the country with long term leadership of statesmanlike quality.

As has been often noted, an Israel confronted with existential threats, can not afford to make mistakes. It gets only a single chance to survive. A political system based on small self identity parties is a risk that Israel cannot afford to take.

Dr. Chaim C. Cohen, whose PhD. is from Hebrew U., is a social worker and teacher at the Hebrew Univ. School of Social Work, and Efrata College. He lives in Psagot, Binyamin.